The Party of the University

Rita Koganzon:

This predictable farce gets to the heart of the weirdness of Gray’s memoir. Describing a life studying in, and serving, an impressive series of universities (including Northwestern, where she served as dean from 1972-74; Yale, where she served as provost from 1974-78; and the University of Chicago, where she served as president from 1978-93), the book depicts a world and an ethic that should strike most of us as quaint and anachronistic. It is full of stories of conflicts defused through structured committee meetings and well-designed faculty governance hierarchies. Gray compares the University of Chicago’s elaborate governance structure to “the constitution of the Republic of Venice in the late medieval and early modern eras,” but praises it for “offering an invaluable means of garnering advice and discussion on all kinds of issues … with the faculty at large.” Of course, that matters only if one intends to work with one’s colleagues rather than one’s Twitter followers.

Gray’s memoir is so insistently out of place among higher-education polemics that it might be worthwhile for that reason alone. She is an inveterate institutional loyalist, impervious to the appeal of the movements and ideologies to which many academics have openly and happily hitched their work. To call someone an institutional loyalist now cannot help but sound like an accusation of moral corruption—surely you’re not going defend Yale over justice? But in Gray’s depiction, correcting injustice rarely requires exposing the university to public humiliation, and, conversely, it is very unlikely that such humiliation will correct any injustice.